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Who’s afraid of the bogeyman?

  • Posted On: 11th June 2013
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Why do humans worship the supernatural? Why do we still cling on to preconceived notions and fabricated fantasy tales? In an era of scientific supremacy, society is still enticed by angels, demons, tooth fairies and Santa Claus. During these tough economic times, one will be surprised to know that the only industries that have witnessed surges are pseudo-religious outlets, astrologers, witch doctors, and other shops for the supernatural. Scientists have unearthed the indicative brain activity responsible for our supernatural cravings; pinpointing rationale behind the survival of supernatural belief in our evolutionary process.

We still have a tail bone and an appendix, one of the many by-products of the evolutionary process. Another by-product is our necessity to cling to mystical manifestations of the mind. The brain tends to allow the individual to cling onto preconceived notions and creates them if they do not exist previously. This knee-jerk reaction is hard coded into our physique. Such belief was essential for our ancestors’ survival. Our brain has developed in such a way that when we hear a rustle in the bushes, we tend to think that someone or something is there. This was a key survival tool to protect our ancestors from predators and would trigger precautionary measures. So, how does the brain conjure up the supernatural? One of the key factors is the fact that our brains have separate cognitive systems for dealing with living things – things with minds, or at least volition – and inanimate objects.

Children have a natural receptivity to believe in the supernatural. The brain, according to Yale University’s Dr. Bloom, has a separate cognitive system for dealing with living things and for inanimate objects. Shown a box moving in a stop-start way, babies show surprise, but a person moving in the same way elicits no surprise. To babies, objects ought to obey the laws of physics and move in a predictable way. People, on the other hand, have their own intentions and goals, and move however they choose. More than 50% of 4-year olds have an imaginary friend, while adults have a tendency to maintain relationships with dead relatives and fictional characters.

So, why did humans conjure up supernatural beings? Obedience was required for the elders to teach their young to survive in tough conditions. This is still prominent in our cousin primates like the gorilla. Kinship was a key characteristic for survival and the closer the groups were, the more likely they were to survive. Similarly, religion allowed for larger groups to develop commonality which would make them outlast other smaller groups and so on. Since the receptivity of blind belief is already genetically predisposed in our brains, belief in gods was allowed to be absorbed. In times where there was no science, people would develop their own theories for various phenomena. There was a God of War, a God of Thunder, a God for Fire, one for love, etc. Apart from gods, there were other preconceived notions and “old wives’ tales” for various aspects of life, some sadly have survived to this day.

Jennifer Whiston of the University of Texas conducted various experiments with random dots and patterns. Participants were shown some patterns that resembled objects whilst some that did not resemble anything. When shown the random patterns, they developed their own superhuman figures. Surprisingly, most of the time it was a religiously oriented figure like Christ, angels, devils, etc. Whiston suggests that when the brain is not given a concrete example of what it is trying to decipher, it tends to manifest its own reasoning. She goes further to suggest that in times of hardship and strife, humans tend to turn to religious and supernatural beliefs more than usual. When the brain’s skepticism is not answered by concrete examples, it tends to turn to its own answers. And this natural reaction is triggered by the same group of neurons in the brain that would create their own language if left to isolation. Bloom thinks that children would most likely develop their own religions as well if raised in isolation. This is a good explanation for various religions sprouting in different parts of the world in our history.

The same way that we have a useless appendix which serves no purpose in our modern day lives, we have inherited other primitive characteristics of survival. Now, we know how and why our ancestors created supernatural notions. The slavish gullibility of our children allows them to be prime targets for supernatural indoctrination. Supernatural belief also tends to be the path of least resistance. In our modern society, the idea of life after death may not help us to survive the here and now, but it helps us to soothe our skeptical minds. For many of us, there is comfort in knowing that there is a supreme being governing our predestined lives whilst some skeptics will adjudicate their lives via the Scientific Method. One thing is for sure though; belief in the supernatural, like our tailbone, is going to be around for centuries to come. It is, and forever will be – along with other preconceived notions – evolving with our society.

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